MIDROC’S CRIMES: continued denials of health, social and environmental disasters in the making
By Ibsa Abdi, Dec 19, 2018
MIDROC claims that the chemical discharged from its mining site does not have an adverse health impact on infants, mothers and the environment. Scientific evidence shows the contrary as cyanide (and mercury), including whether discharged from mining site, does have an adverse health impact on infants, mothers and the environment. Exposing humans, animals, and the environment to chemical waste from mining processes through improper handling, storage and disposal of such chemical waste is crime against humans, animals, and the environment. Such an act should not be tolerated but brought to justice.
It is to be recalled that the Ethiopian Ministry of Mines, Petroleum & Gas, hereafter the Ministry, renewed MIDROC’s Laga Dambi mining license on April 27 to only withdrew it a week later due to the mounting protest at the time. It was stated then that the Ministry, in collaboration with MIDROC, hired Addis Ababa University to conduct a study on the use of chemicals by MIDROC. It was based on a “claimed but never disclosed study” that the renewal was issued but revoked later. Recently, in October 2018, the Ministry and stakeholders, once again, arrived at a general consensus to conduct a thorough study on the mining operation citing the insufficiency of the previous study (Reporter, October 6, 2018). Given that (a) it has been over 7 months since the mining license has been suspended, (b) the stakeholders confirmed the insufficiency of the previous study, (c) the stakeholders agreed to conduct a thorough study on the mining operation by involving a third party- a Canadian firm, (d) MIDROC claims its chemicals cause no harm, and (e) absence of transparency from the stakeholders, it is worth revisiting the issue with focus on these three aspects (see my initial reaction to the MIDROC controversy):
- MIDROC claims that the chemical discharged from its mining site does not have an adverse health impact on infants, mothers and the environment.
- MIDROC’s request for a fast tracked investigation into the allegation that chemicals from its mining has caused health and environmental harms.
- Continued risk of exposure to the alleged hazardous chemicals threatens the health and wellbeing of residents.
Claims of Harmlessness of Cyanide, (and mercury) Discharged From MIDROC’s Mining Processes
MIDROC, in its letter to the Ministry of Mines, cited in Addis Fortune (May 19, 2018) stated that the chemical discharged from its mining site does not have an adverse health impact on infants, mothers and the environment. Though MIDROC, in its said letter, is not denying the discharges of chemical waste from its mining, it claims that the chemical does not cause harm. Here, I will provide and discuss evidence that contradicts MIDROC’s outrageous claim of non-harmfulness of the chemical discharged from its mining site against infants, mothers, and the environment. The claim is outrageously false. Precedent and scientific evidence indicate that cyanide and mercury, including from discharges from mining site, do have an adverse health impact on infants, mothers, and the environment. Before presenting my evidence contrary to MIDROC’s claim, I need to clarify the nature of the claim as it is pertinent to my evidence.
Immediately following the renewal of the license on April 27, and to diffuse public pressures, and in reference to the findings of the undisclosed study conducted, the Ministry of Defense mentioned that there has been improper storage, retention, and disposal of chemicals used in the Laga Dambi mining processes. MIDROC did not deny those facts and there was no doubt regarding the unfortunate improper storage, retention, and disposal of chemicals from its mining plant at Laga Dambi. In fact, MIDROC admits its use of both cyanide and mercury in its operations except that it “stopped” using mercury a “long” time ago. It is clear that there is an improper handling, storage, and disposal of chemical, such as cyanide, that has been used by MIDROC except that the chemical (I will use singular here and as MIDROC wants us to believe) is harmless.
This is a baseless claim, as there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. But before discussing the evidence, I would like to raise a couple of pertinent questions related to this claim. MIDROC claims that the chemical does not have an adverse health impact on infants, mothers, and the environment because “reputable international mining firms use cyanide to treat gold ore.” The question is, has MIDROC followed the same standard, like those “reputable international mining firms” in its handling, storage, and disposal of cyanide and other chemical waste discharged from its mining processes? This is because it is not necessarily the use of cyanide but how it is handled, stored, and disposed once it has gone through the processes that is more pertinent to the issue. So, can MIDROC demonstrate that it has been following the same standard like those “reputable international mining firms” it mentioned?
The fact that there is an improper handling, storage, and disposal of chemical discharged from its mining undercuts MIDROC’s claim because it did not follow the same standard, like those “reputable international mining firms”, in its handling, storage, and disposal of cyanide waste from its mining plant. The second question concerns MIDROC’s use of mercury. “MIDROC indicated that it stopped using mercury a long time ago” (Bekele, May 19, 2018). But, when was that long time ago? Was it a month, few months, a year, few or many years ago? Why not specify the date it stopped using mercury in its mining operation? In those years, when it used mercury in its mining operation, how was the mercury waste handled, stored, and disposed? Furthermore, when MIDROC stopped using mercury, what did MIDROC do to the mercury waste it already generated? Again, did it follow the same standard, like those “reputable international mining firms”, in its handling, storage, and disposal of mercury it already generated from its mining processes? What is worth pointing out here is that the Ministry of Mines already indicated that there has been improper storage, retention, and disposal of chemicals used in the Laga Dambi mining processes. MIDROC did not contest those findings. It “sneakily” claims that the chemical discharged from its mining processes does not have an adverse health impact on infants, mothers, and the environment. Its claim are false. That is what I want to address next. First, how do we get exposed to these chemicals?
Exposure and toxicity of cyanide
Exposure to cyanide occurs through inhalation, ingestion and or transdermal absorption (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, ATSDR, 1999). Cyanide, contrary to MIDROC’s claim, is extremely toxic to humans (EPA., 2016). Cyanide binds to and inactivate cytochrome oxidase and other enzymes and inhibits cellular respiration leading to oxidative stress, metabolic acidosis, coma, and death (ASTDR, 2006). Cyanide, furthermore, combines with sulfur to form acid mine drainage—an acidified runoff—that can contaminate streams, and underground water (Fields, 2001). As Fields (2001) indicates acidified runoff, if not prevented, can seep out and leach out heavy metals—such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, zinc, iron, copper, aluminum, manganese, and chromium—which it releases from the ores it passes through. These heavy metals pose serious problems due to their toxicity, bioaccumulation and persistency in nature and for causing birth defects (Agrawal, 2012). Cyanide discharge, in addition to its own toxicity, thus, potentiates the release of other toxic heavy metals from the ores and can adversely impact human, animal and the environment. MIDROC is not denying the release or discharge of cyanide from it mining processes. MIDROC is only claiming that the discharge does not have an adverse health impact on infants, mothers, and the environment. This claim contradicts scientific evidences, as shown above. There is additional line of argument, regarding how environmental hazards affect the developing fetus resulting in congenital abnormalities as observed in the area. First, let me address mercury toxicity.
Mercury: Exposure, Toxicities, and Congenital Malformations
As mentioned earlier, MIDROC used mercury in the past. The question now is whether MIDROC properly handled, stored, and disposed mercury discharged from its mining operation? Until MIDROC could demonstrate that it proper handled, stored, and disposed mercury waste discharged from its mining processes, MIDROC remains liable for the human, animal, and environmental damages mercury discharged from its mining processes have caused.
What are the adverse effects of mercury? I will turn to that now. First I would like to mention the Minamata Convention, so named after the beautiful Minamata city in Japan, where the local communities were poisoned by mercury-tainted industrial wastewater in the late 1950’s (Unite Nations, 2017). Among those affected were, two sisters, aged two and five, who were diagnosed with the crippling, untreatable and stigmatizing effects of mercury poisoning. That observation led to further uncovering and pile of evidence that has led to a global treaty on mercury to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury. Now, how do we get exposed to mercury?
Exposure to mercury occurs from breathing contaminated air, ingesting contaminated water and food. Organic (methyl) mercury tends to bio-accumulate in the food chain and at high levels has been linked to tremors, paralysis, anemia, bone deformities, and death (Fields, 2001). Infants born to women who were poisoned with methylmercury had developmental abnormalities and cerebral palsy (ATSDR, 1999). Mercury in the mother’s body passes to the fetus and may bio-accumulate, possibly causing damage to the developing nervous system. Ismawati (2016) reported that chronic exposure to mercury was linked to various birth defects, such as infants born without fingers, without ears, only with one eye, with cleft lips and palates, with upper or lower limb reductions, with head shape anomalies (microcephaly and hydrocephaly), with imperforate anus, with intestines or other organs stick outside of the belly through the belly button, with weak arms and legs (muscular dystrophies), with lump on the forehead, and/ or with congenital cataracts. As the children grew up, Ismawati (2016) added, “some of them display delayed development and or neurodegenerative anomalies and becoming mute and deaf, some survived only to the age of 15, while most could not make to 6 months.” More disturbing, according to Ismawati (2016), is that more congenital abnormalities have been noticed years after the mining activities stopped.
These continued occurrences of congenital malformations, even after the closure of the mining plant, is disturbing but not unexpected because congenital malformations occur in developing fetus and a developing fetus is susceptible to genetic factors or environmental insults or a combination of the two that occur during prenatal development. As indicated earlier, cyanide discharge could lead to an acidified runoff—that leaches and releases toxic heavy metals from the ores and contaminate water systems. People and their animals ingest these toxic metals from drinking contaminated water and by eating fish and animal meat that are rich in these toxic metals as these heavy metals tend to bio-accumulate in the food chain. Toxicity to the fetus occurs when a developing fetus is exposed to one or combination of these toxic chemicals in the womb. Exposure to even low levels could cause developmental abnormalities, including fetal death (Brent, 2001).
Linking Observed Health Problems to Scientific Evidence
Do the health problems observed in Shakiso area including the widespread human and animal respiratory illnesses, miscarriages, birth defects and disabilities differ from what scientific evidence shows and what unfortunately has also been observed elsewhere? The answer is clear. Scientific evidence and observation from elsewhere show that cyanide, and other heavy metals released into the environment, could have disastrous consequences. What compounds the problem is the vulnerability of the developing fetus to these environmental assaults. Lack of acute toxicity, though its absence is not proven, should not be confused since these toxic chemicals could impact the growing fetus even at lower concentrations through a varieties of mechanisms.
Based on the scientific evidence, I am afraid that the magnitude of the problem is much worse than the few disturbing images we have seen in the media. The pollutants may keep bio-accumulating via aquatic animals. The open pit mines are just ticking bombs waiting to explode. However, I am in no way stating that we should not use the mineral resources because of the attending potential risks. Here, I am only emphasizing that we should adhere to international standards when extracting these minerals in order to protect human, animal and the environment.
The Need for an Urgent, Impartial and a Thorough Investigation into the Allegation
In the remaining section, I will address the nature of investigation that is needed and the reasons for its urgency. Let me, fnally, express some of the points that I share with MIDROC. Yes, due to mine closures, the country is losing foreign currency (Bekele, October 6, 2018). However, mine closure is not limited to MIDROC owned mining plants. It also affected government operated mines such as the Kenticha tantalum mine (Roskill, August 16, 2018) located in Boruu Sabaa in Borana that was suspended in December 2017 following public outcry due to toxic pollution that affected the surrounding residents and their environment. The problems seem nationwide, and come from long term government abuse of power and neglect of its duties. If the problems that caused public outcries are addressed and these mines resume operation, they would benefit all the stakeholders, the residents (owners), the investors, and the government. So I am with MIDROC on the urgency of the issue. However, I do not believe that an expediated investigation is the best way to go. A thorough investigation, and a way forward that benefits all the stakeholders is what is needed. The government and investors need to do their level best to come clean from the gross violations of rights, the denials, and subversion of truths that triggered the public outcries from the beginning. And that requires a thorough and an honest investigation. To try otherwise is just delaying the inevitable.
There is also an important, a very important, reason for me to join MIDROC in demanding for an urgent investigation into the alleged health, social and environmental crises caused by chemical waste discharged from these mines. As alleged, if the health, social, and environmental problems have been caused due to the chemical waste that have been discharged, in the absence of remedial actions the chemical waste will continue to cause the health problems mentioned. Based on the findings, I hope, remedial measures would be executed. On the other hand, if there is no health risk, as alleged, conclusion of the study would bring a much needed psychological relief for the people. Therefore, there is an urgent need for the timely resolution of these problems.
In conclusion, MIDROC’s claim that the chemical discharged from its mining site does not have an adverse health impact on infants, mothers, and the environment contradicts scientific evidence and should be rejected. Cyanide and mercury, including when discharged from mining sites, do have an adverse health impact on infants, mothers, and the environment. By improperly handling, storing, and disposing chemical waste from its mining operations, MIDROC has committed crimes. Exposing humans, animals, and the environment to chemical waste from mining processes through improper handling, storage and disposal is a crime. MIDROC’s act is a crime. Its denial of it is an added crime. These crimes should not be tolerated but brought to justice.
Addis Fortune. (May 19, 2018). MIDROC seeks fast investigation on its suspended gold mine site
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). (1999). Toxicological profile for mercury. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). (2006). Toxicological profile for cyanide (update).
Agrawal, A. (2012). Toxicity and fate of heavy metals with particular reference to developing foetus. Advances in Life Sciences. 2(2): 29-38
Bekele, K. (May 19, 2018). Ethiopia: MIDROC Gold demands speedy investigation Into alleged environment pollution. The Reporter
Bekele, K. (October 6, 2018). Canada to support study on Lega Dambi gold mine. The Reporter.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA., 2016). Cyanide compounds. EPA Fields, S. (2001).
Tarnishing the earth: gold mining’s dirty secret. Environmental Health Perspectives.
Ismawati, Y. (2016). Children’s exposure to environmental toxicants. UN Committee on the rights of the child 2016 Day of General Discussion “Children’s Rights and the Environment”
Roskill. (August 16, 2018). Tantalum: Ethiopian Kenticha mine looted.
Unite Nations. (September 2017). Minamata convention on mercury: Text and annexes. Unite Nations Environmental Program.